Hemet business owners are concerned about unpermitted and unlicensed street food vendors who they say are causing unfair competition.
Ricardo Barajas, owner of El Ranchito Taco Shops and La Morenita Mexican Restaurant & Seafood in Hemet, said he spent $260,000 to open another El Ranchito restaurant two years ago. Meanwhile, street vendors without city and food permits continue to crowd sidewalks and take away business and profits without following the rules.
But Barajas wants to make one thing clear: street vendors “can come and do everything we do. So there’s competition, but it becomes an unfair competition.”
The costs of running a licensed and permitted business — rent, health and food permits, containers for oil, business taxes and trash bins — add up. Seven local business owners recently took their concerns to the Hemet City Council, asking officials to help fix the problem.
“It’s affecting the city,” Barajas said. “It becomes very unfair for people who have businesses.”
On top of monthly dues, opening a restaurant can be expensive with equipment costs and food and safety permits.
Barajas and Abel Sanchez, owner of El Patron, said during the June council meeting, that food vendors coming to sell in Hemet are from Los Angeles. They also allege that code enforcement officers don’t enforce the city’s food vendor laws.
Hemet Code Compliance Manager Lionel Martinez could not be reached for comment last week or this week. Hemet Police Department spokesperson Alan Reyes referred questions to Martinez.
But Mayor Malcom Lilienthal defended the city’s handling of the issue.
“The city has enforced these laws fairly, ensuring that our residents do not intentionally consume contaminated food from unsafe vendors,” Lilienthal said. “We have been conducting every effort to enforce violations of the city ordinance with zero tolerance.”
On a recent Friday, Tacos Lalo set up on the corner of Cottonwood Avenue and South Sanderson Avenue in San Jacinto. Employees said they came from LA, where they said earlier in the day police told them to leave. So they drove to San Jacinto.
“If we don’t sell, we don’t get paid,” said one employee, who declined to give her name because she feared repercussions.
More than a handful of street food vendors were seen Friday, July 22, in Hemet and neighboring San Jacinto.
Barajas said many food vendors place their stands between Hemet and San Jacinto to try and dodge Hemet’s street food vendor ordinance.
Another group of vendors at New Chicago and Florida avenues in green polo shirts and red aprons served food from the LA-based Tacos la Guera. They set up in other cities across LA County, including South Gate, Huntington Park and Venice.
With 24,400 followers on Instagram, La Guera’s known for al pastor — grilled pork usually cooked with an adobada marinade and pineapple — tacos, which usually sits on a rotating grill.
While such vendors aren’t permitted, they have rights in California.
Though SB 946, the California law that ended criminalizing sidewalk vendors, passed in September 2018 and became effective in January 2019, cities can set ordinances related to health and public safety.
In Hemet, street food vendors must obtain a sidewalk vendor permit, which costs $79. Food trucks need a food truck permit and all food vendors must receive food handler’s certification from Riverside County. Permits must be displayed on the cart or truck, according to the city’s ordinance that was passed in May 2021.
The $27 food handler’s certification, which tests users about foodborne illness, safe food temperatures and proper hygiene, must be completed by everyone working with food.
Hemet’s ordinance regulates what sidewalk vendors can and can’t do in the city.
In that city, street food vendors must stop sales between 9 p.m. and 7 a.m., food should be stored and carried by the vendor or their cart and they shouldn’t block access to sidewalks.
Like Hemet, Riverside opted to set an ordinance for street food vendors last year.
A Riverside County Department of Environmental Health said unpermitted food vendors often violate food safety measures.
Food and health safety is not always a concern for street food vendors, who frequently operate without restrooms, handwashing stations and protection from airborne contaminates, said Brent Casey, spokesperson for the county’s department of environmental health.
Barajas owns multiple businesses in the county. Some are partnerships with family or friends, including La Morenita, a seafood restaurant he opened in Hemet with Antonio Cardenas, who he’s known for 20 years.
For each business, Barajas said he can pay up to $30,000 a month in taxes, depending on business.
“It’s frustrating. They’re killing us,” Barajas said. “We can’t compete.”